Archives for posts with tag: Israel

Sermon for Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 26th May 2019

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Matthew 28:1-10, 16-20 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=425693885) – But what about the Bigots?

‘Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.’

You can tell, even without reading the whole book, that this passage at the end of the book of the prophet Zephaniah turns things around. The first two chapters of the book are not joyful; they are more like lamentations. The kingdom of Israel, the people who made the exodus from Egypt, who had David and Solomon as kings, had split into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom called Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah, in which was Jerusalem.

In 721 BC the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians. Zephaniah was prophesying some time after that, probably about 100 years later, in Jerusalem. The sub-heading in one of my Bibles on this passage is, ‘Doom on Judah and her neighbours’; so the first part of the book is all about how the kingdom of Israel, which has become the province of Judah, has gone to pot.

The great day of the Lord is near, …

That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, …. And I will bring distress upon men, that they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord: (Zephaniah 1)

Why is the Lord cross with his people? Zephaniah says,

“Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city!

She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the Lord; she drew not near to her God.’ (Zephaniah 3:1-2)

This was all nearly 3000 years ago, but there are definite resonances with things that are happening here today. I wrote this sermon originally on Friday, and I didn’t think we would know the outcome of the EU election until after 8 o’clock tonight, as we have to wait until all polling stations in all EU member states are closed – and most of the countries are having their vote today.

I suspect that it will turn out to have been a strange business, and whatever the outcome, we will all continue to have a more or less uneasy feeling that something is wrong with our society, and with our country, at the moment.

Whether it goes as far as the sort of thing that Zephaniah was prophesying about is obviously a moot point, but it seems to me that it’s not controversial to say that, wherever you are in relation to modern politics, whatever you believe in, this is a time to be concerned and worried.

The idea that comes from Zephaniah in the part which was our first lesson today, ‘Sing, O daughter of Zion’, … ‘be glad and rejoice’, is something which I think we would all respond very well to. We would love to feel that everything was right with the world, and that we could relax and be joyful.

Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. I don’t think that it’s going to help very much for me to try to spell out to what extent any of the competing parties and interest groups – ‘interest groups’, because the Brexit Party isn’t a political party, it’s actually a limited company – it isn’t going to be easy or productive at this stage to try to relate aspects of each of these people to the eternal verities which we are trying to understand and to carry out in our Christian witness.

It’s no good trying to say whether one or other party or interest group is better or worse at trying to bring the various parts of society back together, so as to finish the various arguments which have so divided people. It isn’t even worth it at this stage to try to express a view on what is going to help people materially, or perhaps more realistically, to hurt them least, in the various proposals advanced by the various parties. People are not listening to rational arguments.

What would Jesus say? I really don’t know. But I think it’s worth reminding everyone that it’s a good question. If we sit down quietly and try to work through the various propositions which have been put to us, from the time of the referendum three years ago until now, it might be a very good exercise to look at each one in the light of that question.

What would Jesus have done? What would Jesus have thought about these various things?

I went on Thursday night to our friends at St Martin’s in East Horsley for a talk which they had organised, by the long-serving former MP, Chris Mullin, who is well known for his many books, including ‘A very British Coup’, which was made into a TV series. After he had given his talk, from the audience a lady stood up and, I think, rather shocked everybody. I should tell you that the audience was about 30 people, and they could easily have been from here. Normal bods, tending towards the middle-aged if not slightly elderly; middle-class, middle-aged, respectable people. When this lady stood up, asked her question and made her point, she looked exactly the same as everyone else. But she wasn’t.

She told us that although she had grown up in this country, had lived here for many years and had worked as a solicitor for a City firm, she was not English. She was German, and her father had been head of the UK division of the great German engineering company Siemens, which has a number of factories here, and has had for many years. She is married to an Englishman. After the referendum result, her husband had said that he thought that it was not going to very nice for their family to carry on living in England – meaning, not very nice for his wife, for his German wife. So they now live in Spain. There they have recently bought a new car. One of their neighbours, she said, wondered whether it was going to be a Range Rover, and said he hoped that it wasn’t – because they didn’t want to see anyone buying anything British for the time being.

And I, as I think some of you will already have heard, had a similar experience shortly after the Brexit referendum when I went to Hamburg, and some of my German friends, several of whom have been friends for 30 or more years, all said more or less the same thing to me, the same simple sentence: they said, ‘But we thought that you were our friends’. Imagine how I felt.

No more comments on that. We all have strong views. But what would Jesus say about it? I wonder.

Let’s move on to our second Bible lesson, from St Matthew’s Gospel. It’s the resurrection story, the empty tomb, which we have read about in St John’s and St Mark’s Gospels already, during this Easter time.

For some reason the compilers of the Lectionary have missed a bit out. You’ll notice that, in St Matthew chapter 28, tonight we have heard verses 1 to 10 and then 16 to 20. The missing bit is a story, which appears only in St Matthew’s Gospel, about the chief priests bribing the Roman soldiers who had been set to guard the tomb – and again, we read about these guards only in this Gospel – bribing these soldiers to spread a story that Jesus’ disciples had come in the dead of night and taken Jesus’ body away. The passage ends, ‘This story is still told among the Jews to this day’. Perhaps that’s why it’s left out now in our lessons, as it could be taken as a a point against Judaism.

That’s one bit which is unique to St Matthew, not too crucial. But the other unique bit is far better known. It is the Great Commission, as it is called.

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.

It is the great call to Evangelism, to spreading the Good News, the ‘Evangelia’,(Ευαγγελία) the Greek word for good news. Jesus assured us that He is still with us: he said, ‘... lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’

I began this sermon with a rather gloomy recital of the prophet Zephaniah’s words of lamentation about the godless state of the people of Israel in Jerusalem, and I invited comparisons with the state of our nation today. I invited you to think what Jesus might have to say about it. That is a really tough question.

But what about the Great Commission? How are we doing on that one? Our British reserve tends to make us rather coy about announcing our Christianity to people in public. But increasingly, people are growing up without having read the Bible or been to Sunday School. It’s important, therefore, that we have our family services at St Mary’s and that our PCC is beginning to think about having a youth worker. We invited Esther Holley, the children and young people’s minister from St Andrew’s in Cobham, to come and talk to us about her work, and we all found her account inspiring. As a result of Esther’s work, St Andrew’s has a solid group of children and some teenagers. But nothing stands still. Esther has been accepted for ordination training, so they will be looking for her successor soon. Maybe we should start making moves in this direction too.

And finally, on the question how we are carrying out Jesus’ commission to ‘teach all nations’, I think that it is vitally important that we maintain the warmest welcome, here at St Mary’s, to our services, to our church family, and to our other activities based around St Mary’s Hall, the best church hall for miles around.

I personally would like us to look at joining an organization called ‘Inclusive Church’, which encourages churches not just to be welcoming to all, but to advertise that they are. It’s the old story of the two milkmen competing for business (you can tell it’s an old story, because competition on the same milk round disappeared years ago), and one milkman put a big banner on his milk float saying, ‘We deliver milk every day’. Of course his competitor did the same thing, but they didn’t advertise it. The milkman with the banner doubled his sales!

The same reasoning, I think, would work for us. If I have moved into this area and I’m looking for a church to go to: if I’m going through a tough time in my life and I’d like to find somewhere to say prayers: if I want my kids to learn what’s in the Bible: what will St Mary’s be like inside? Now if there’s a big sign outside saying that everyone is welcome – and I’ve put a picture of an Inclusive Church sign from another church with my sermon on the website [see above] – then people can feel confident, and they will dare to open our door and come in.

I know that not everyone agrees with this idea. Some people say we are already a really welcoming church. No need to join organisations or advertise – although I would gently say that it’s noticeable that we have no black people in our congregation. Somebody once even said to me, in this context, ‘But what about the bigots? We mustn’t upset the bigots!’

Well that perhaps takes me full circle, to the outcome of the European election. What about the bigots? What would Jesus say? I think he would say, ‘Look who I have lunch with already. People get shirty that I sit down with tax gatherers and sinners. But they are welcome!’

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Sermon for Evensong on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 27th January 2019

Psalm 33; Numbers 9:17-24; 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 – Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

When I went to the Holy Land a few years ago, on the Clandon parish pilgrimage led by Revd Barry Preece, we had an optional visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum. It came as a complete change of mood from the rest of the trip. Every day we had visited sites from the Bible, in Bethlehem or in Galilee or in Jerusalem, following in the footsteps of Jesus, and every day we worshipped together in these fabled places, which before we had only imagined, perhaps helped by some pictures in books or in museums which we had been to, but now where we actually were in the places where Jesus had been.

Now we really were in the Garden of Gethsemane, or out in the Sea of Galilee, imagining St Peter and the disciples not catching any fish. Generally, it was a happy, upbeat time. We met for supper and told each other stories over nice suppers and drinkable wines. Some of the Lebanese wines were really memorable … We didn’t actually go to a party at Cana in Galilee, but we got the flavour of it.

At the same time, we could see that there was a difference between the Israeli and Palestinian districts. We could see the awfully ugly and massive wall, dividing the two. We came across the ‘settlements’, which we had read about, where Israeli ‘settlers’ had established themselves, in contravention of United Nations resolutions. But despite the rather temporary-sounding name, ‘settlements’, they weren’t some sort of temporary camp; think instead of something like Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes on the top of a hill, in one instance [Wadi Fuqeen], pouring its sewage down into the valley below, where the Palestinians, whose land had been taken, still eked out a meagre existence.

There was a ‘night tour’ by coach around Israeli Jerusalem. No more dusty Middle Eastern roads, teeming with scruffy lorries and minivans, that you get in the Palestinian part of Jerusalem. No, here it was broad highways, sprinklers, green grass verges. Almost nobody walking, but rather most people driving. A beautiful hotel, the ‘American Colony’ – that is really its name. We didn’t go in, but I could tell that it would be nice to stay there.

On the way down to Masada in the desert, to see Herod’s amazing mountain-top palace, we went through a check-point between Israel and Palestine. It took our 40-seater coach a couple of minutes to be waved through. The queue of weary-looking Palestinians waiting to cross the border – some of them to their own land, which had been arbitrarily divided by the Israeli wall – were, we were told, often delayed for more than an hour, for no reason.

And then some of us went to the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. I remember remarkably mundane exhibits; freight trains whose cargo was people; endless paperwork, detailing everything about that ‘cargo’; personal effects, the stuff ordinary people had with them. But truly I felt a kind of internal contradiction. The exhibits were fine, so far as they went. But the point was, that the banality of this industrialised slaughter was overwhelming. Very few of the things we saw in the museum were, in themselves, weapons or instruments of torture. But nevertheless, this was killing on an unforeseeable and awful scale. It was too much to take in properly, but it looked mundane and normal. Nothing could justify the awfulness of the Nazi persecution in the Second World War, nothing could justify that genocide.

I’ve just finished reading a really good and enlightening book by Philippe Sands, the well-known QC who specialises in the defence of human rights, called ‘East West Street’. That street is in the city called Lvov, or Lviv, or Lemburg – a city now in Ukraine, which has been in Austria and Poland also at various times, where two of the greatest academic lawyers of the modern era were born: Sir Hersch Lauterpacht, who invented the legal concept of crimes against humanity, and Professor Raphael Lemkin, who invented the word – and the concept – of ‘genocide’. Both were Jewish. Both lost many of their families in the Holocaust. Philippe Sands’ grandfather also came from there.

‘Genocide’ was defined by Prof. Lemkin as acts ‘directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of national groups’. [See http://www.preventgenocide.org/lemkin/AxisRule1944-1.htm] The Nazis killed people not because of who they were or what they had done, but because of what they were. To be a Jew was to attract a death sentence. The term ‘genocide’ was first used, at Prof. Lemkin’s suggestion, in the charges brought in the great Nuremberg trial of the Nazi leaders in 1944. Prof. Lemkin had coined the word from the Greek root γενος, a tribe, and the Latin cido, I kill.

When I went round the Yad Vashem museum, I felt strangely detached. On the one hand, I felt the mundane, industrial horror of the concentration camps. Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27th because that is the day when Auschwitz was liberated. On the other hand, the fact that surely no-one, now, would seriously think of doing anything as awful as the Nazis did.

Except that they have done. There have been other instances of genocide since WW2. The massacres in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia, for instance. What causes it?

No clues in the lesson from the Book of Numbers. Rather recondite stuff about when the Israelites, in exile but having come out of captivity in Egypt, would move forward when the ‘tabernacle’, the tent covering the Ark of the Covenant, the very ornamental box containing the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets, was covered and uncovered by clouds. This is part of the Torah, the law, the story, of Moses, and of the people of Israel, God’s chosen people: fine; but why would anyone hate those people?

And in the other lesson from St Paul, the emphasis is on the inclusiveness of Christianity. Come as you are. You don’t have to attain any status first. You can be a slave and still be a good Christian. You can, certainly, be Jewish. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you can’t be Jewish too. We might wonder why St Paul didn’t object to the existence of slavery, but certainly there is no suggestion that some people are less deserving of salvation than others. Indeed St Paul uses the mechanisms of slavery to illustrate how Jesus can set people free, literally.

But despite these innocent Bible passages, we know that anti-Jewish feeling is a very old thing. The Jews, as a race, have been blamed for killing Jesus. They have been called ‘god-killers’. Martin Luther was very antisemitic, blaming the Jews for failing to recognise Jesus as the Messiah. He was out of line with most of the other Reformers in this. After all, the story of Paul’s conversion and acceptance by the early Christians, even though he had been persecuting them – and Jesus’ own words from the cross, ‘Forgive them, they know not what they do’, and so on, go against any blanket condemnation of the Jews.

It is still an issue. In this country the Labour Party has been condemned for being antisemitic, although I think that I would make a distinction between being opposed to some of the actions of the modern state of Israel, such as the expropriation of Palestinian land and building ‘settlements’ in contravention of United Nations resolutions, being opposed to that on the one hand, which seems to me to be legitimate, and being anti-Jewish in general. That distinction recalls Raphael Lemkin’s definition of genocide, in that people who are antisemitic are against people because of what they are, rather than because of what they do.

St Paul’s message of acceptance, of inclusion, is still very relevant. In some places when I was a boy, there were adverts which specified ‘no blacks and no Jews’ could apply. It surely couldn’t happen nowadays. But there has recently been the EMPIRE WINDRUSH scandal, where our own government, Mrs May herself, the Prime Minister in her previous post, forcibly sent elderly black people to places in the Caribbean which they had left when they were children, left at our invitation, in order to come and work here. That recent scandal again shows people judging others by what they are – in that case, black people who have come from other countries – rather than by who they are or what they do.

The banal routines, the orderliness, of the Holocaust are still a danger, I fear. Very few people would just go and shoot someone: but what if you are a soldier and you are ordered to do it? Of course that was at the heart of the Nuremberg trials. The railway employees who drove the trains, who manned the signal boxes, who repaired the main lines, wouldn’t normally be looked on as authors of genocide. But without their work, the poor Jews would not have been put in the concentration camps so efficiently and in such vast numbers. There were lots of innocent routines and ordinary jobs, which nevertheless made genocide possible.

The other great lawyer whom Philippe Sands celebrates in his book is Sir Hersch Lauterpacht, whose son was Sands’ tutor at university. Lauterpacht developed the other great concept which was first used in the Nuremberg trials, the concept of crimes against humanity. The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights grew out of Lauterpacht’s work, and was, by contrast with Lemkin’s work, concerned not with crimes against whole peoples, but with crimes against individuals. What was the true nature of the evil contained in the Holocaust? When the victorious allies were preparing to try the Nazi leaders, what was the essence of their crimes? It was an assault on people as individuals, on who they were, as much as on what they were.

These are still vital ideas. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, his great command to us to love our neighbours as ourselves, and St Paul’s message all through his letters that it doesn’t matter what our origins are if we are to become Christians – these are so relevant today. When we hear people saying things against people because of what they are – foreigners, migrants, black people, say – and when we hear people saying that it’s just too bad (but there’s nothing which can be done about it) that many people don’t have enough to eat, or can’t afford medicines – those are the sorts of ideas which in the past have resulted in genocide.

Archbishop John Sentamu is starting to raise money for a bishop, Bishop Hannington Mutebi in Kampala, Uganda, who needs cancer treatment – which costs £155,000. What do we feel about that? We hope he gets the money, and the treatment. What if you weren’t a bishop but still had cancer in Uganda? You are still entitled to be treated, because you are human. You have human rights. Perhaps it has taken the history of the Holocaust to bring it home to us how vital those rights are.

Sermon for Mattins on the 12th Sunday after Trinity, 19th August 2018

Jonah 1 – Jonah and the Whale

Jonah didn’t want to go to preach in Nineveh. Nineveh was a big city in Assyria, Syria today – it’s now called Mosul. Jonah was a Jewish prophet. His people had been enslaved by the Assyrians – ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold’, as Byron put it – and the Assyrians definitely didn’t believe in the One True God of the Israelites. They believed in the Baals and the sacred poles and various other idols, and they were generally immoral and badly behaved. But God had told Jonah, as his prophet, to go and preach to them.

But Jonah decided to disobey God, and he ran away to sea. Our lesson says he took a passage in a ship to a place called ‘Tarshish’, but that word is just a general Hebrew word for ‘the ocean’. He just went anywhere except to Nineveh.

It didn’t go well. They were caught in a storm, and they had to throw cargo overboard to lighten the ship. As an aside, I wonder whether this is an early reference to the ancient maritime law concept of General Average, defined by the Marine Insurance Act 1906 (s66.2) as ‘… any extraordinary sacrifice or expenditure … voluntarily and reasonably made or incurred in time of peril for the purpose of preserving the property imperilled in the common adventure.’

I don’t want to wander off the track too far, telling you all about the more esoteric things in English maritime law, but I ought to just mention that our law has a wonderful expression, the ‘marine adventure’. It just means the business of sending a ship to sea on a voyage. The Marine Insurance Act, where so many of the principles which still govern maritime law and trade are found, says ‘there is a marine adventure where… Any ship goods or other moveables are exposed to maritime perils.’

‘Other moveables’: this was a law passed in 1906! It gives flexibility for any kind of transport by sea – what about an ‘Ekranoplan’, for instance? [https://goo.gl/images/ydMN5r] Or more mundanely, a hovercraft? Or a marine drone? I think they could all be described as ‘moveables … exposed to maritime perils’. They were very far-sighted in 1906, obviously.

But never mind which shipping line he took, whether they declared General Average, or which flag the ship was flying. The point was that Jonah didn’t want to preach in Nineveh. It begs the question why anyone, never mind just Jonah, would want to stand up in public in a strange place and tell their audience that they’re a bunch of godless no-good libertines. Come to think of it, though: if I stand up in this pulpit and say anything that some of you might call ‘political’, some of you may well give me a hard time. It has been known …

Imagine what it would be like if I were a Jewish rabbi – a preacher – today, going to Gaza and telling the Palestinians that they are all sinners, that the god that they worship is not real – well, not that their god is not real, because the Moslem God is the same God that Jews and Christians worship – but suppose this imaginary rabbi preached that the Palestinians’ understanding of god is faulty – and that the end is coming. I doubt that they would be particularly receptive. It’s not a preaching assignment I would want. And indeed, Jonah didn’t.

But there was a very important extra factor, which would also have influenced Jonah. That was nationality. Jonah was an Israelite, and the people of Nineveh were Syrians (or more precisely, Syrians under the overall rule of Persians.)

Incidentally, I hope it won’t disturb your repose just now if I mention – dangerously, perhaps – that we never, these days, refer to the Jewish people in the Old Testament as ‘Israelis’, but always as ‘Israelites’. Why is this?

When the great pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim was interviewed on BBC Radio 3 before his BBC Proms concert on Tuesday this week, he said something along these lines; (I haven’t tracked down a verbatim recording, but my recollection is) he said that, in the current context of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, if you criticise the Israelis, you are also, automatically, criticising the Jews – and people may allege it is anti-semitic to do so. But Maestro Barenboim, who is an Israeli citizen and a Jew, clearly did not think that it was necessarily antisemitic to criticise Israel, and the Israelis.

Given what the Bible tells us of the search by the Jews for the Promised Land, it’s certainly difficult to make a distinction between Jews and Israelites. The people of Israel were the Jews: the Jews settled in the land of Israel. They were what we would normally call, Israelis. And if so, then the ancient Israelites have become the modern Israelis, one could argue.

Here, in the story of Jonah, there is a very strong anti-nationalist, universalist, theme. In God’s eyes it doesn’t matter whether the people to be prayed for, or to be preached to, belong to the right nationality, whether they are Israelites. When Jonah has been saved by being swallowed up in the great fish, and God asks him a second time to go to preach in Mosul, this time he doesn’t hesitate.

And it works. The people in Nineveh are very receptive to what Jonah has to tell them. They repent; they are forgiven. God doesn’t destroy their city. If you read on in the Book of Jonah – it’s only got four chapters – you’ll see that Nineveh is saved, but, rather surprisingly, Jonah is unhappy: he is cut up about why the heathens in Nineveh, those totally undeserving layabouts, should get this prize. They aren’t the right people to be saved. It should have been the Israelites, the chosen people.

But from God’s point of view, what difference did it make what nationality they were? Jonah seems to have thought that only the Jews, only Israelites, would understand the full theological background, the need for repentance. Heathens, ‘gentiles’, like the Assyrians, wouldn’t get it. They did not worship the one true God and so they didn’t qualify, in Jonah’s eyes. But when the Assyrians, having realised the power of God, saw that God had accepted their repentance, and wasn’t going to destroy them, they started to worship God too.

I think that we sometimes slip into a similar kind of insularity, a tendency to think that nobody who isn’t like us deserves to do as well as we do. I know I sometimes catch myself out being surprised when I find that someone who’s ‘not British’ turns up doing an important job, or where there’s a foreign-sounding name where we’d expect Smith or Jones.

After all, what is wrong with people coming and living here, earning a salary and paying their taxes? I would argue that the Book of Jonah supports the view that it doesn’t matter where you came from or who your parents were. You are a human being like me. The Jewish Law of the Old Testament said, look after the stranger at your gate. In Deuteronomy 10:19 Moses teaches, ‘Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt’.

God makes it very clear to Jonah that, as He said through the prophet Ezekiel, He loves all people. ‘He does not want the death of a sinner, but rather that he should repent and live’ (Ezekiel 33:11). That’s exactly what He got from the people in the great heathen city of Nineveh. They repented, and He let them live.

The story of Jonah and the whale is a lesson in universalism. It isn’t just a good monster story. It’s wisdom literature: it’s there to teach a lesson. That lesson is that God isn’t just one lot of people’s god, not a local idol. He created all of humankind. All of us: black, white, brown, Polish, Welsh, Indian: all humans, all equally children of God.

It is the origin of the idea of universal human rights. It took the aftermath of the Second World War for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be drafted and adopted by the United Nations, (and then for British lawyers, led by David Maxwell Fyfe, to draw up the European Convention on Human Rights, which in our law is the Human Rights Act), but the seeds of the concept were sown in Old Testament times. The people of Nineveh were just as much children of God as Jonah and the Israelites.

Perhaps as a parting thought over your lunch, you might think about this. Today if you, we, are the Israelites, who are our Assyrians?

Maybe we should just keep that gate open. And do we need a whale to keep us out of trouble? I hope and pray, not.

Sermon for the Parish Eucharist by Extension on the Feast of Mary Magdalene, 22nd July 2018

2 Corinthians 5:14-17, John 20:1-2,11-18

Confronting the Miracle

The story of Mary Magdalene might be the most important passage in the Bible.

Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty. What did it mean?

… she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

How to deal with it mentally, in our thought – is it open to reasonable doubt?

Reasoning against other logical possibilities, that, e.g.

– Joseph of Arimathea took his body and reburied it; why? What good would it do to Joseph, or anyone he sympathised with?

– Jesus wasn’t dead when they put him in the tomb;

– The Jews or the Christians took his body; what Mary M initially thought must have happened. Someone would have ‘snitched’ or leaked.

– It was a ‘conjuring trick with bones’. The late David Jenkins, formerly Bishop of Durham, said it was not a …

Rational answers are available to contradict all these theories.

But do we believe? Memo 1 Cor 15:12f. If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, our faith is in vain: we are proclaiming a lie.

But what does it mean, to believe in something? To believe that x is true, x is real – but what does that mean? That x is something, or does something? That if I believe that x, x is necessarily true? Not necessarily.

If I believe that something is true, then for me it is true; but someone else might review the exact same proposition that I have said must be an example of God at work, and get the same moral imperatives without a Christian sanction. Do this, because God says it is good, or, if God is not in the picture, because it benefits the most people or makes for the greatest human happiness (if you are a Utilitarian, say).

What if we somehow ‘duck’ the issue and simply carry on? How? I think this is a way of describing what Richard Dawkins thinks. He doesn’t worry about a beginning or an end of creation, but rather sees a process, evolution, which is all we need to know about, from a practical point of view. There is no Creator, no divine force.

Can there be a sort of ‘tribal’ Christianity? Maybe the earliest example of this would be the army of the Emperor Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 325AD [CE]. Constantine, inspired by a dream, ordered that his soldiers should paint on their shields the symbol of the Cross. They then won a victory. Did they believe? Surely not. But Constantine went on to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. It’s arguable that that was as important in making Christianity a worldwide religion as St Paul’s work among the so-called ‘Gentiles’, the ‘nations’, in a Jewish Bible context, the non-Jews.

If either St Paul’s realisation that the Gospel ought to be preached to the Gentiles, or the Emperor Constantine’s decision to adopt Christianity as his empire’s official religion, had not happened, we might well not be here in church.

But what about today? People talk about having ‘Christian values’, without their being churchgoers. That’s interesting. The way that St Paul thought it worked, as he put it in his letter to the Galatians (chapter 5), and effectively as everyone from John the Baptist onward preached, if you came to believe in the Good News of Christ, you would be changed: you would ‘repent’. And you would start to live a virtuous life.

But what if you skip the believing bit, and just decide to live a virtuous life, because it makes sense to you?

We’ve then got at least two schools of lukewarm moralists. C of E Christians, on the one hand, say, and the ‘spiritual – I mean charitable – but not religious’ on the other.

But are we right to qualify these two groups as ‘lukewarm moralists’? Lukewarm, yes. The early Christians were willing to sacrifice themselves for the Gospel, for the cause. To die for it. Horribly, often. But what about us? Maybe some are willing to risk their lives. Respect to them! But most of us will do good, generous deeds, just so long as rescuing refugees doesn’t involve personal liability or risk.

Is this akin to the current populism, mistrust of ‘experts’ etc? A rejection of reason? Voting for Trump, who is a racist, sexist, xenophobe and liar? Why should these characteristics not weigh more with people?

How do we regard people who definitely don’t believe? Or who are happy to take part in church activities, but ‘I don’t go along with everything in the Creed’? Do we let them ‘belong and then believe?’

What about being ‘inclusive’?

What would Mary Magdalene say? We often ask, ‘What would Jesus say?’ But what would Mary say? If she met one of the lukewarm believers …?

Why is her story the most important in the Bible? Compare the best-known passage, John 3:16:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

God – the creator – loves us. Only the creator could bring a dead person back to life. Think about that, in the light of the Mary Magdalene story. Really confront it. Confront the miracle. Don’t just duck it, don’t say it’s too hard. Then perhaps being a Christian really will change you. Change you for the better.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday after Easter, 29th April 2018

Isaiah 60:1-14, Revelation 3:1-13

I’m not sure whether Jerusalem is a good thing. ‘Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest’: as some of you will know, always puts me in mind of my favourite biscuit when I was little: Huntley and Palmer’s Milk and Honey biscuit, which was a bit like a superior jammy dodger. No, what I have in mind now is that the idea of Jerusalem covers all sorts of things. It is a place: for sure it is a place today, which President Trump has designated as the place where the United States will have its embassy, as though it were the capital of Israel – although it isn’t. There is the place in ancient times which Isaiah, the third of the three authors who together make up the book of the prophet Isaiah, writing in the sixth century before Christ, made the more or less mythical capital of the promised land, the city of the Lord, the ‘Zion’ of the holy one of Israel. Zion is the name of the hill on which the city of David, the centre of Jerusalem, was built. It was the place for the temple and was, in a sense, where God lived.

So it goes on to have a meaning as the heavenly city, the kingdom of heaven; which is the idea in our reading from Revelation. ‘Him that overcometh’, the elect, the chosen ones, ‘him … will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, … and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God’. We still talk about people being ‘pillars’, ‘pillars of the church’. They are the stalwarts, the usual suspects, on the PCC and Deanery Synod.

That mythical new Jerusalem was adopted by William Blake, of course, in his great hymn,” And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green? … I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, until we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.’

In some ways that all sounds very admirable and harmless. The picture in Isaiah of the holy city, ‘The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense’ is a wonderful picture. You may wonder, of course, what a dromedary is. And I have to tell you that Hilaire Belloc, in his ‘Bad Child’s Book of Beasts’ gets the dromedary completely wrong. He says,

The Dromedary is a cheerful bird:

I cannot say the same about the Kurd.

Hilaire Belloc, Complete Verse, collected edition (1954), reprinted 1991, London, Pimlico, p.237 n

A Kurd, you know, people who live on the borders between Turkey and Iraq: Kurds, not animals at all! But also, dromedaries are not birds, not birds at all. They are a sort of small camel. Mind you, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts is probably not a good source of zoological information. I can’t resist reading you what Hilaire Belloc says about the tiger, just before the entry about the dromedary. It comes after his description of the lion.

The Tiger on the other hand, is kittenish and mild,

He makes a pretty playfellow for any little child;

And mothers of large families (who claim to common sense)

Will find a Tiger well repay the trouble and expense.

Oh dear. Well, Isaiah correctly thought of dromedaries as a species of camel. ‘The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah’. Everyone will come to the holy city, not only the Jews but also the Gentiles: ‘The Gentiles shall come to thy light.., the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee.’

‘Therefore thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night; that men may bring unto thee the forces of the Gentiles, and that their kings may be brought.’

This is a clue to the problem which I want to go into now. It’s the idea of a homeland or nationality; it’s a very strong idea in many people. Scotsmen go all over the world but keep their Scottishness; they always celebrate St Andrew’s Night and Burns Night. But nationality is not an entirely benign idea. The problem seems to come when people are on the move. Obviously, as we are in church, we can think of the Jews, the people of Israel, leaving the land of Egypt and the land of Babylon –

‘By the waters of Babylon

We sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion.’ Psalm 137.

They longed for the Promised Land. Then, as we know, the promised land story was effectively repeated, but without any parting of the Red Sea or anything, following the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Palestine was declared to be a national home for the Jews – and there’s been trouble ever since, between the Israelites and the people they displaced, the Palestinians.

In this country, maybe William Blake’s new Jerusalem has to some extent already been built. I noticed that an MP called Kemi Badenoch, whose parents were Nigerian, was saying on ‘Any Questions’ on Friday that she thought that Britain was a very attractive country for people to come to and settle in; and that we are a welcoming people. I have to say, having heard the awful stories of what has happened to many of the ‘Windrush people’, I thought she was being rather generous; but nevertheless, the idea is there. It seems to be a similar one to the one in Isaiah: that if we have ‘built Jerusalem, in England’s green and pleasant land’, then not only the Israelites, but also the Gentiles will be welcome to it:

‘.. thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night’

so presumably that means that not only the people who were born here, but also other people from outside – in this context, the ‘Gentiles’ – should be able to get into the Holy City.

But then again, perhaps the Holy City is spiritual, a spiritual concept rather than a literal, physical one, so we should rather look at the sort of vision that St John the Divine shares with us in Revelation. A place for the people who prove worthy of salvation:

‘Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world..’

If you are one of the saved, then you are going to be welcome in the City of God, new Jerusalem. This new Jerusalem is in heaven, or it ‘comes down from heaven’. I think that, as soon as you see the word ‘heaven’, it’s a signal that this is a spiritual concept rather than a literal, physical one.

The Son of Man, Jesus, appearing to St John the Divine, telling him to write down his letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, is a sort of preparation for the Day of Judgement. Watch out! ‘I know thy works’. You aren’t everything that you’re cracked up to be. Be careful, if you want to go to the new Jerusalem.

So I wonder whether the idea of the new Jerusalem resonates with us at all today. Is it in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’? If so, are the Gentiles allowed in – with their camels and dromedaries, bringing their gold and silver? Who are the ‘Gentiles’ today? Are they just us, who happen not to be Jewish? or should we be like the church at Philadelphia – by the way, you know what ‘Philadelphia’ means in Greek: it means ‘brotherly love’ or ‘brotherly affection’ – and of course that includes sisters too. Αδελφός means a brother, and αδελφή a sister, so Φιλαδέλφεια means brotherly or sisterly love.

So are we going to be like the people in Philadelphia? Although they have ‘a little strength’, they’re not very strong, they have ‘kept my word’ and have not ‘denied my name’. They will be welcome in the new Jerusalem. We know what we have to do. Open the gates!

L

Sermon for Evensong on Palm Sunday, 20th March 2016
Isaiah 5:1-7, Luke 20:9-19

Did you see the Shetland pony this morning? The children made a beautiful tableau and there was a Shetland pony pretending to be a donkey for them to ride on, to make a procession, to remember Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem for the last week. It’s really a bittersweet message. For that lovely hour or two, Jesus led a procession of people who believed that he was God’s chosen saviour, God’s chosen saviour in a triumphal sense, like a Roman general returning in triumph from conquests overseas, leading a procession into the capital.

But the sad thing is that that was then, but the mood darkened very quickly thereafter. The clouds started to gather and Jesus started to challenge Jerusalem. This parable, the parable of the vineyard, some of which, on one level, was simply a retelling of the story from the prophet Isaiah, sets the tone.

Holy Week is about divine judgement; for God, against God. For man, against man: ‘Judge eternal, throned in splendour’. Isaiah made a prophecy of the kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah – the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is Israel, and the men of Judah are the plant he cherished – ‘He looked for righteousness but found it denied, for righteousness but heard cries of distress.’ [Is. 5:7, NEB] Jesus put out this story as a challenge. You are the chosen people, Israel. You have all the advantages. God has done everything he can to make the vineyard a good one.

Then he let it, to professional winemakers, tenants. Those tenants are the human race. The human race rejected God’s son and eventually killed him. What will God do? What will the landlord of the vineyard do? If we, who are tenants in his vineyard, have a lease on life in this world? What will God do if we have killed his son? It is a truly terrifying prospect.

Even so, we don’t really appreciate its force these days. This morning I said my theme was that we know what comes next. There was a sort of spoiler alert. We know that after the Passion, after Jesus’ terrible suffering, after Jesus dies, after God is killed, God rises again in glory on Easter morning.

Maybe we can’t really help knowing what comes next, but still, we ought to appreciate the force of the Passion story. We ought to appreciate that we are still like the tenants in the vineyard. If we have no care for God, if we do the things which killed Jesus, if we have no love for him and no love for each other, if we pursue false gods, then we are like those hard-hearted people who figured that it was to their advantage to free Barabbas and crucify the son of God.

Whatever we have been doing by way of Lenten reflection, in prayer and abstinence in the last four weeks, in this week of all weeks we should remember that we are tenants in God’s vineyard.

Maybe, just as with a new story, if we know what happens, we should keep it to ourselves – spoiler alert! – we should actually be cautious about saying we know what happens next. What will the owner of the vineyard do? We’re very cavalier. We just carry on. We live our lives as we’ve always done. We don’t receive the stranger, and take him in: we don’t give him clothes, when he’s shivering with cold. Is he a real refugee, or just a migrant?

But Jesus wouldn’t have made that distinction. In that time of final judgment, when Jesus separates the sheep and the goats, he will decide, he will judge, by what we have done for the hungry, for the thirsty, for the homeless stranger, for the person with no clothes. [See Matt. 25:31f]

It is disgraceful that there are still thousands of people in Calais and Dunkirk who are marooned without proper habitation, without washing facilities and proper sanitation. These are people whose homes in Syria have been bombed, whose families have been decimated. Some of the children in the camp actually have a legal right to join relatives in this country, but it’s not happening.

We are going to take the Foodbank van over there soon. There was some confusion at first, and we couldn’t find out how to get access to the camp; but now we have established contact with the local Guildford charity, Guildford People to People, and we’ll be able to get in. Many of you have already given clothes and blankets, which is great. I’ll let you know if there are any other needs which we can supply. We must do it. Jesus will ask us, when he was a stranger, a refugee, what did we do?

Then again there was another terrible story in the paper this week. An MP, Stella Creasy, had actually thrown the chief exec of a charity out of her office – called a policeman to throw him out of the Houses of Parliament – because she was so cross with him.

His charity had sold some flats which it owned, all of which had been occupied for years by poorer people who thought that the charity was looking after them. The charity sold the flats to a developer, who promptly gave all the poor tenants notice to quit. The MP raised this with the chief exec of the charity. Was it not wrong that their old tenants, old people, should be made homeless in this way? He shrugged his shoulders and said,’It happens’. All that mattered was that they had raised a lot of money by selling the flats. ‘It happens’ is what people say, far too often. We have to try to stop ‘it’ happening. ‘It’ is the sort of thing which has killed the son in the vineyard.

Let’s not be like the tenants in the vineyard. Let’s not do the things that kill the landlord’s son. Jesus was challenging us, us just as much as he was challenging his contemporary audience. We must not throw Him out; we mustn’t leave him shivering outside; we must make room in our hearts for Him.

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday in Advent, 13th December 2015
Isaiah 35; Luke 1:57-80

So where are we up to in Advent? This is the third Sunday, and we are thinking about John the Baptist. Our second lesson was about Zacharias and Elisabeth, the faithful old couple who were way past having children when an angel visited Zacharias and told him that Elisabeth would have a son and that they would call him John.

Not surprisingly, Zacharias was rather worried that this was all not real. He asked the angel for some sign that he was telling the truth, and the angel said that he would be struck dumb until the boy was born. At about the same time, the angel Gabriel went to see Mary.

These were instances of special children, children with links to God, being born to women who had previously been unable to conceive, which had happened before in the Old Testament, in the book of Samuel. Hannah was infertile, but she prayed in the temple that if God granted her a son, she would give him up to be a priest. According to the book of Samuel, this happened.

So: John the Baptist. The angel had said that ‘he shall be great in the sight of the Lord and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost … And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ (Luke 1:15-17) It was the beginning of the Kingdom of God, the time when all the happy things described by Isaiah in our first lesson would happen, the lame man leaping as an hart, like a deer: ‘then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing.’ [Isa.35:5f]

John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord. But what did he actually do?
He baptised people. What did that really involve? Obviously, dunking them in the river Jordan was what he was doing physically, but why did people turn out in vast numbers, as they apparently did, in order for him to submerge them in the Jordan?

Baptism by total immersion still happens today. The last Deanery confirmation and baptism service was at St George’s, Ashtead, where they have a built-in baptism pool. One of the faithful at St Andrew’s, a grown-up, was duly baptised there this Autumn. According to him, the pool was not heated, but he didn’t seem to mind.

The symbolism of baptism is fairly straightforward. It is a symbolic washing way of all our sins, all the bad things about us. If we are making a stand against evil, and trying to be closer to God, this washing will symbolically wash away the obstacles to our closeness to God. You can see what the washing is intended to signify.

Well that in Ashtead was a couple of months ago, but going back to Biblical times, the story of Zacharias and Elisabeth and their son John needs to be related to the context of the Old Testament. The significance of John’s arrival in this miraculous way has to be understood as it would have been understood at that time, in the context of Old Testament theology.

What John was doing in baptising was not just giving people a wash, but it had ritual significance as well. In the Jewish cult, that is, the way in which the Jews worshipped God, there are all sorts of procedures laid down, particularly in the book of Leviticus, among them for what was called ‘purification’. The Jewish religion was a religion of sacrifice, holiness, purification and atonement.

At every stage in life, Jews had to come before their God and propitiate him, turning away his anger and regaining his love by giving him things, by making sacrifices in his favour. This mostly involved killing innocent animals, unfortunately, and then burning them on the altar. I won’t take you through the whole ghastly procedure. If you really want to look it up, it is in Leviticus chapters 11 to 15.

The Jewish religious rules also laid down foods which were permitted to be eaten and which were not. Jewish people still abide by this – although some of my Jewish friends seem to have given themselves some latitude where bacon sandwiches are concerned!

I always smile when we read Romans chapter 14 about the Christian attitude to foods which were ritually proscribed. ‘One believes that he may eat all things, another, who is weak, eateth herbs’ – or, as for once in my life I prefer a modern translation, ‘the weak eat only vegetables.’ [NRSV, Romans 14:2]

Be nice to your vegetarian friends!

But there is an urgency about this, a dynamic to it, which perhaps we don’t quite ‘get’, if all we understand about John the Baptist and about baptism is a kind of symbolic washing, or even a kind of initiation ceremony. As we say, anyone who has been baptised is welcome to eat at the Lord’s table. That’s not really the full flavour of how it was in the Old Testament. The Jews were God’s chosen people, and their worship was designed to acknowledge that they had been singled out by God.

The whole dynamic of the Old Testament concerns the interaction between the Jews and God. They disobeyed God, and were enslaved by the Egyptians and Babylonians. They obeyed God; God loved them again, he freed them and took them to the Promised Land. It’s an idea of God, a picture of God, which I don’t think we would find convincing today.

Take the stories, that we were brought up on, of the soldiers in the trenches in the First World War, perhaps 100 or 150 yards apart, the Germans and the Brits so close that they could hear each other talking. So close that they could hear each other saying their prayers. They were both praying to the same God. What were they praying for? To survive, not to be hurt, and, dare one say, to win.

How could there be a God who favoured one side over the other? Or both sides against each other? Just as a matter of simple logic, it doesn’t work. It surely can’t be how God works.

Of course some people don’t take it any further than that and simply say that it means that God does not exist. I think in a way that is just as big a mistake as imagining God as some kind of divine helper who can fix things when they are seemingly hopeless, and more importantly, who can favour one lot of people over against another.

Of course the Emperor Constantine, in 312AD, had a vision, before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, that if he and his soldiers painted the sign of the cross on their shields, God would give them victory. They did paint the sign of the cross on their shields and they were victorious.

After that, Constantine adopted Christianity and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. That was probably one of the biggest factors in making Christianity a world religion instead of just being a local middle eastern cult.

But it is rather doubtful whether Constantine actually believed in anything which modern Christians would recognise as Christianity. We certainly would not imagine that God would work some kind of magic so that someone would win a battle.

But certainly in the Old Testament time, the time of Moses and Elijah, Jews believed that they had to perform these various sacrificial rituals as part of their proper worship of God. There was a vital significance to this, that unless they worshipped properly, God would be angry with them. If so, God would ultimately enslave or destroy them. Ritual cleansing was all part of this worship.

These days, I don’t really ‘get’ the idea of ritual washing. I’m as fond of a nice spa as the next person, but that has to do with simply enjoying a pleasant experience. If somebody said to me that, in order to get closer to God, to put myself right with God, perhaps to atone for past wrong, for things which I have done, I needed to be baptised, I needed to have a ritual bath, I’m not sure whether I would believe in it.

Perhaps we should look again at what the work of John the Baptist could mean today.

For instance, the idea of purification. In the Jewish religion, purification has a connotation of stripping away things which are not true, bringing people to the true God, to the vital reality of creation.

Such a purification, a weeding out of things that are not true, that are wrong, could still make sense. There are plenty of things that are wrong today. If they were purified, refined back to their true essentials, would it indeed help to bring people to the true God, to the vital reality of creation?

Vital reality. I wonder why it is, therefore, that today there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of urgency. Quite a lot of people, after their Sunday lunch, and perhaps a little walk, may indeed have watched Songs of Praise, but now instead of coming to Evensong, they will be settling down for a pleasant evening catching up with the doings of some Norwegian detective.

I wonder whether we ought to be quite so blasé. Some of the things, which we take as being facts of life, perhaps aren’t. They might perhaps be better for some purification.

Take money for example. We all understand the idea of money: that money is something which stands for things which you can exchange for it. A certain amount of money gets you a certain amount of goods or services. Until 1933, a £1 note could be exchanged for a gold sovereign. There was a gold standard. The idea was that money had a fixed worth.

Clearly that is not true any more (if it ever was). Why is it, for example, that if a poor person goes into debt, maxes out their credit cards at Christmas and then is made redundant, they are immediately in trouble, and there is no one to help them; but if the banks go bankrupt, as they did in 2008, governments will step in to bail them out? It’s all the same stuff: all money.

Indeed the banks were bailed out largely by the government creating money. Clearly that money did not necessarily represent, or have any equivalence with, goods or services in a way we would understand. Is that the reality that suits us human beings best? Is it a true reflection of how things are? Perhaps we need some kind of washing. Perhaps this whole system needs to be washed through, cleaned.

Maybe John the Baptist still has something to say to us. It is something to think about when you are next in the Jacuzzi.